The Book Club

The Power of Fun

The Internet equivalent of the zipless fuck is the “garage-door opener” theory of high tech. It’s the idea that all you need to do is invent the right tech, push a button, and the whole world opens up. Closed governments open, the narrow-minded become open-minded, and so on. This was the promise of the telegraph, radio, and television; and in the 1990s, this was the promise of the Internet. And it’s still the premise of books like Thomas Friedman’s The World Is Flat.

Tom Friedman and others still believe in the garage-door theory, but recent history makes their faith untenable. Witness Google, witness China, witness the death of Napster and the rise of iTunes, and all the other ways that governments today control Internet use. The point of Who Controls the Internet? is to try to understand what happened: why Friedman is wrong, why the garage-door theory didn’t work, and how companies like Yahoo! went from being cyber-libertarians to collaborating with China. A lot of the story, we say, comes down to some things that haven’t changed: the surprising persistence of geography and physical force as sources of order. In less fancy language, its all tied to the fact that we all have bodies and live somewhere, which still means something, even in cyberspace. It means, depressingly or not, that governments can control us, and, moreover, that we need some kind of government to protect ourselves from each other. We are bad: We not only spam and flame each other, but we also defraud each other, and molest and assault each other. Preventing truly bad behavior is where threats of physical force are hard to replace.

But here’s where AnArmy of Davids comes in.Youshow, in example after example, how decentralized “packs” and highly motivated individuals beat out old, centralized powers. The deeper premise is that the greatest power on earth is not greed, love, or violence but the pursuit of fun and the grip of personal obsession. It’s like what people say about marriage—much fades, but habits and fun remain. You present a type of libertarianism that’s not spooky or paranoid, but friendly and happy, born of those who think that decentralization is just more fun. That power of fun is obviously what accounts for the “mysterious power” of And in general, bloggers writing for fun—or out of single-minded obsession—can thump reporters trying to get home by 6 p.m. And what you show is that the same is not just true of political blogs, but of things like beer-making, customized teddy bears, and even national security—individualized or radically decentralized economic activity is just more personally meaningful.

The logic of An Army of Davids might also imply that governments, as we know them, are doomed. They are big, old-fashioned, and working for them isn’t so much fun (with the exception of goofy jobs like clerking or, if you’re Edward Abbey, being a Park Ranger). Like Big Media, the order provided by Big Law is perhaps destined to be replaced by something more decentralized and entertaining. Come on—would you rather be a NASA bureaucrat or build your own space rocket?

Fine for NASA. But our point is that all the great stuff you talk about in an Army of Davids, from blogging on up, depends on something else. Something old and ugly: physical security backed by threats of legitimate force, Thomas Hobbes’ “leviathan.” That’s something very hard to replace, even with really cool technology, like this.

This point about replacing physical coercion comes through in the story of eBay. eBay is fun for its users and stars in your book as a larger employer than Wal-Mart. When it began, eBay’s “law” was nothing but a feedback system and a fellow named “Uncle Griff” who was paid $100 a month to help mediate disputes. But over the last seven years, eBay has learned something: It cannot survive without the FBI, which helps it prevent a level of fraud that would kill its business. And what makes the FBI special? It can hurt people, and it can throw them in jail, and its ability to do so is mostly unquestioned. Yes, eBay can do a lot with its feedback system, which does a lot to expose dishonest users. But throwing a fraudster in jail is something eBay cannot replicate.

Let me close by getting started on your “one Internet or many” question. Is one Internet for the world better? Or would a more Balkanized online world, where Internets differ by country or region, serve users better? While the impulse to say that a global Internet is the whole point, we say that a Balkanized Internet is not only inevitable (it’s already happening), but that it may actually be a good thing. Of course, we have a lot of caveats.

Our position is controversial, but here’s why we defend it. First, part of what’s pulling the Internet apart is the market and consumer choice. People clustered by geography demand different experiences, content, languages, and so on, and Internet companies respond. That’s why the Icelandic Internet isn’t in English, and why much of the Japanese Internet can be usefully read from a DoCoMo cell phone.

The same goes for different laws that affect the Internet (though I concede the point is harder). People living in different places might want different laws for the Net, plain and simple. You like vanilla, I like chocolate—you want to live in a place where Nazis have the right to march through Jewish neighborhoods, I want Holocaust deniers arrested. The point is that different nations may have genuinely different preferences as to what they want the Net to be. Europe and the United States are becoming good examples of difference, as the examples just discussed show. So, why not encourage different takes on what the Net might be and see what happens?

Finally, I have a question for you. Some say that relying on people like bloggers to substitute for an independent press is deeply misplaced. The argument is that, in the end, they’re too weak—they don’t have the heft or resources to challenge truly powerful entities like government or large corporations. It’s an argument for the old CBS news and Murrow: that part of what makes America work is a centralized and powerful independent media that have the resources and the credibility to invest in the kind of reporting and investigation that part-time bloggers will never do. Is that just wrong, or is it at least partially right?

That’s not all there is to say about these topics, but I’m out of room.